Saturday, May 2, 2009

A tale of Spoons and Forks ...

Sometimes, the humblest objects of daily use tell a tale more eloquent, more rich and complex, than anything we could gain from written records. Such is certainly the case with the material relics of the Franklin expedition. Setting aside those with greatest seeming significance -- Franklin's Hanoverian badge, the infamous dipping needle, or Des Voeux's shirtsleeve -- some of the most common items recovered have the greatest potential meaning for those attempting to reconstruct the last months of the Franklin expedition. I refer, of course to utensils -- forks, spoons, and the occasional knife -- which were recovered by many early Franklin searchers from Rae to C.F. Hall -- and which, even today, have not yet been systematically examined for what they can tell.

The utensils, most of them quality silver plate, were initially recognized on account of the family crests on their handles, which showed them to be from the families of officers such as Franklin and Crozier. Franklin's distinctive crest -- a conger eel's head between two sprigs -- was the most commonly found, suggesting that his plate had been first and widely distributed among the sailors; perhaps the most poignant of the crests was that of Fairholme -- a dove with an olive branch and the motto "Spero meliora" -- I hope for better things.

And yet there's more: on the stems and undersides of these same spoons and forks, there are found the scratched initials of other men, most of them ordinary seamen. The only explanation seems to be that, prior to the abandonment of the "Erebus" and "Terror," the silverware of the officers of both ships was distributed to the men for their use. In some cases, as with Franklin's, this was because the officer in question was deceased -- but the principal reason, doubtless, was to preserve the silver plate without burdening any one party with too large a quantity. And, since the silver plate from the officers from each ship was distributed to sailors aboard the same vessel, the discovery of a fork or a spoon -- provided its provenance can be definitely settled -- may give us a very likely indication of the path of the crew of that ship.

The pattern seems suggestive -- for instance, nearly all of the utensils recovered by McClintock at Cape Norton on the eastern coast of King William Island were connected with the "Terror" -- there were two Franklin spoons marked "WW" (William Wentzall, seaman) and WG (William Gibson, steward), both of the "Terror," along with a Crozier fork and a teaspoon of Alexander McDonald, assistant surgeon. Only one item -- a Fairholme teaspoon -- was associated with the "Erebus." One could envision that a party of men from the Terror might have camped here on there way to or from nearby Matty Island. Might this party have been on its way to some further point, perhaps Fury Beach? Frustratingly, when McClintock visited a party of Netsilingmiut near the North Magnetic Pole, which would have been near the next general transit of such a journey, he obtained mostly utensils from the "Erebus," although a lone McDonald fork was among them.

It's tempting to look at the prevalence of "Erebus" relics recovered farther south, including those obtained in 1854 at Repulse Bay by Dr. Rae, as a sign that the crew of that ship was moving in a more southerly or southwesterly direction -- and yet again, items from officers of the "Terror" crop up as well. Yet the specific provenance of any of these is highly uncertain; since the area was a crossroads for many Inuit bands, and Rae had announced a bounty for such items, they might well have come from anywhere. From the testimony he received, it was clear that none of the Inuit who turned such items in were those who originally recovered them.

What, then, of spoons or forks with very clear provenance? Alas, even when we have a utensil handed in by someone who claimed to have originally found it, the evidence is very mixed. The famous spoon offered to Schwatka, complete with the Franklin crest and a distinctive mending job where the cracked bowl had been repaired with copper, is one such example. While the giver, one Nutargeark, claimed he'd gotten it from King William Island, it later devolved that he'd more likely stolen it from a New Bedford whaling master Captain Potter, who'd been given it by "Sinuksook's wife," who'd found it somewhere northwest of Cape Englefield off the coast of the Melville Peninsula.

Nevertheless, I've always thought that a careful inventory ought to be made. While several of the utensils brought back by McClintock are catalogued at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, those retained by Dr. Rae, and given by him to the University of Edinburgh, do not seem to have been given detailed analysis (although, judging from the images on the university's website they appear, most unfortunately, to have been polished!). The spoons and fork recovered by C.F. Hall are still somewhere in a warehouse in among other relics of the defunct U.S. Armed Forces History Museum, with no online images or desctiption. And, in part due to their strong association with the Franklin saga, a fair number remain in private hands; I know of a collector in Canada who is said to be able to set out a full dinner service for six in which every plate and utensil is from either the Franklin party or one of the ships involved in the search!

Perhaps this might be an ideal project to conduct with the unique resources of the Internet -- I invite anyone with images or knowledge of such utensils to contact me, either by posting here or privately.


  1. Spot on Russell!

    Thanks for making this post. You are absolutely correct. There is a great deal of information to be derived from this cutlery by looking at the totality of it as an assemblage. This has never been done as no-one has access to a complete database of cutlery. The internet is the ideal way to build this database, as you say, and collectively we can achieve more than any one of us could do on our own. I have a comprehensive database of the cutlery holdings at the National Maritime Museum, the Museum in Edinburgh, the National Museum in Dublin and the Scott Polar Research Institute. I believe there is may be some cutlery in the Hudson's Bay Company collection in the Manitoba Museum. Maybe other Museums in Canada hold some? I had no idea about the U.S. Armed Forces History Museum until I read it on your blog. Undoubtedly private collectors and relatives of members of the Franklin Expedition also hold some.

    Some of this cutlery definitely has seamen's intials scratched on. This identifies which seamen were alive at the time the silver was distributed to them, which presumably was when the ships were abandoned, though that is an assumption. It also perhaps helps identifies those officers who had died at this point, though that's less certain. Some of the seamen's initials scratched on have not been identified. For example, the National Maritime Museum holds at least one item which is said to have an indecypherable scratch, and another which has been read, but presumably wrongly, as the initials quoted are not those of anyone who was on the Expedition. The Scott Polar Research Institute and the Museum in Edinburgh both have polished cutlery on display which appear plainly to have scratched initials on them, but which have not been read. Neither Museum has put their cutlery under the microsocope, and both should. The National Maritime Museum could also profitably put a metals expert onto reassessing the cutlery in their own collection too.

    I have assembled a partial database of cutlery, recording the information I have been able to glean, mainly from records available on the internet or in the UK. I'm happy to share this with researchers in Canada and the US and elsewhere. I'll try to find out how to post my database on my blog, and I can then update it if other people could be kind enough to provide me with information about cutlery held in collections I have not been able to analyse.

    I'll post a piece on my blog later summarising what I've learned about Expedition so far from my own analysis of the cutlery. Could we also use your blog to make a collective plea to the Museums and collectors holding cutlery to examine it scientifically for initials and publish the results?

    Thanks again for starting this important discussion.


  2. William, many thanks for your warm response to this area of inquiry. Somehow, I had a hunch you'd have some good information! I hadn't known that information on Edinburgh utensils was available, or that there were any such materials in Dublin. I'll be very interested to see your blog posting!

    The US Armed Forces Museum was absorbed into the Smithsonian Museum of American History some decades ago; the paper of Charles Francis Hall, with which I've worked quite extensively, are readily available at the archive there. However, with the exception of a copper cylinder (one of Hall's with his note still inside!), the materials there do not include any physical relics. These would include the chunks of iron and pieces of brick recovered from the Frobisher expedition, along with Hall's belt (designed by him with a thong to hold his field-notebooks), some biological specimens, and last (but far from least) some cutlery and a wooden barometer-case from the Franklin expedition. I'll try again to see if these can be found -- last I checked, I hit a dead end, but now the this particular museum has been renovated and fully re-opened, it may be worth another try! I can also check with the Hudson's Bay archives, and perhaps -- if I am very lucky -- with the unnamed Canadian collector, with whom I have at least two mutual contacts. Just having a cross-list giving crest, scratched initials, and provenance if known, would be a fabulous start!

    I'll send along separately a list of what I have found so far, although I suspect it's all known to you.

    With thanks for your enthusiasm,

    R U S S E L L

  3. You have earlier published a map showing locations where artifacts and bones were found. A similar map showing where the silverware items were recovered (and # from Erebus, # from Terror) might be interesting, even if the provenance of each item were suspect.

  4. Hi Paige,

    That's an excellent idea. What I am hoping to do now, actually. is make use of Google Earth to produce a modern map with color-coded pins to indicate the location at which a given utensil or utensils was/were recovered. I haven't tried anything like this before, but it looks to be possible. Meanwhile, William Battersby is working on a data table for is blog. Between the two, I hope we can shed some (collaborative) light on the matter!